Day 4 in San Francisco: Touring Wine Country

Though we wanted to explore some of the Bay area’s wineries, we wanted to avoid renting a car if at all possible – besides taking advantage of public transportation, it would ensure we wouldn’t have to worry about driving after one too many glasses of wine. And, well, our wine palates are not exactly finely tuned, so neither of us were that particular about which wineries to hit. Mack took on the task of researching group tour possibilities.

In his exploration of Napa Valley shuttles, he uncovered a plethora of terrible websites (sure, they may not be directly connected to the tech world, but it was a little ironic given its proximity to the start-up capital of North America). Most seats were priced in the $75 to $100 range, only some of which were “all inclusive” of entry fees and tastings. We eventually settled on the Wine Country Tour Shuttle, which was competitively priced, but more importantly, would pick us up from the centrally-located Ferry Building.

Wine Country Tour

Wine Country Tours (and Tom!)

We met up with our driver and tour guide Tom at 8:30 that morning, and all 38 of us boarded a comfortable bus for the journey. Our fellow passengers spanned age and countries of origin – some were from as far away as South Africa and Switzerland. Tom, a retired schoolteacher, was a fantastic guide, affable, knowledgeable, but light in his delivery. Though not in the same league, after a poor experience with an incompetent Contiki guide in Europe, I knew that the leader would make or break the excursion, so it was particularly comforting to be in good hands.

Our only complaint about the tour was why the organizers didn’t make it an all inclusive tour. I’m certain adding even $25 to the overall price that would help cover entry to and tastings at the first winery wouldn’t have deterred anyone from selecting this company. It just seemed silly that after booking the tickets online that we had to have cash on hand at all for something other than wine purchases.

Besides that, we had a lovely time. Our first stop was V. Sattui, which, curiously, boasts the only deli in Napa Valley (even more curious was the fact that they kept reciting this fact as if it was the biggest selling point of V. Sattui). We had read online that goods in the deli were quite expensive, so being the “clever” travellers we were, we thought to kill two birds with one stone by bringing along the tasting pack we had purchased the day before at Cowgirl Creamery (and thus having the perfect excuse to try their cheese).

V. Sattui

V. Sattui

Well, it turns out our planning was unnecessary, given the tour provided us each with a $10 credit to spend in the deli. It did bolster our lunch offerings, however, and meant we were able to round out our meal with meat and bread as well. Being a beautiful California day, it was an afternoon made for an outdoor picnic.

V. Sattui

The spread

After lunch, we headed to the tasting room, where we had to jostle for a spot at the counter. Though the tasting fee wasn’t included with the tour, it was a decent deal – 5 samples for $5. We ended up picking up a bottle of Gamay Rouge – V. Sattui wines aren’t available in stores, and it’s rare that Mack and I find a red that we both like.

V. Sattui

Tasting room


Our second stop was probably my favourite of our entire tour, even if the ambassador of Domaine Chandon had the air of a used car salesman – I had to give it to him, the man knew how to make a show of opening pressured bottles.

Domaine Chandon

Ever the showman

Domaine Chandon is known for its sparkling wines, of which we were able to try three. We bought a small bottle of Classic Brut to remember the winery in all its lush, green glory.

Domaine Chandon


Domaine, with its garden-lined paths was what I thought most of Napa would look like. In actuality, the vineyards actually looked quite bleak – sure, the vines themselves were green, but driving past large segments of yellowed grass between wineries that had seen better days, it was a visual reminder of California’s dependence on irrigation.

Domaine Chandon

The vines at Domaine Chandon

Franciscan was our third stop, notable for its bore of a guide, but also for the freedom we had to taste grapes fresh off the vine. It was also the winery with the priciest bottles (in the $60 range), which meant our hands stayed in our pockets.





We also had to take an obligatory photo on the Rutherford Bench – which actually refers not to a literal bench, but the area that Franciscan falls in that is ideal for grape production.


The “Rutherford Bench”

Our last stop was the Whitehall Lane Winery, which helped demonstrate why the Wine Country Tour Shuttle was so popular – it showcased different aspects of the wine-making process, from grape to aging. At Whitehall, we were ushered into the production facility, which included some time in their enormous barrel chilling space, filled from floor to ceiling with 1100 barrels.

Whitehall Lane

So many barrels!

After too many wine samples (with a constant longing for accompanying bread or cheese), our way back to San Francisco was a welcome one – a breezy, refreshing ferry ride from Vallejo across the Bay.

San Francisco

Bye, Vallejo!

Dinner wasn’t gourmet, and in fact, the grease probably helped with the detox. We crawled back to the Westfield Mall, and dined on overstuffed pizza ($4.99) from Bristol Farms. I am still amazed Mack managed to make his way through his meat lover’s monstrosity.

Bristol Farms

More meat than you should handle

What would day 5 have in store for us? Well, a Top Chef Masters sighting for starters!

2011 California Wine Fair

What event combines three hundred wines, tasty appetizers, one of the most stunning spaces in Edmonton and the ability to support fine theatre? If you answered the California Wine Fair, you’d be correct! A fundraiser thirteen years running, the proceeds from the event go towards the artistic endeavours of the Citadel Theatre.

I was lucky enough to be given two tickets to this year’s fair, which ended up being a blessing of sorts. Due to a prior volunteer commitment, I wasn’t able to meet up with May until the last hour of the event, which, though unfortunate, still meant we could get a taste of what the California Wine Fair was all about.

Walking into Hall D at the Shaw Conference Centre was a bit overwhelming. Sure, there weren’t three hundred vendors (most booths were pouring several different bottles), but the fair still presented a veritable sea of wines to try. The crowd was diverse, but was definitely younger than I expected – a majority consisted of that “next gen” set.

Given our time limitations, May and I opted to be selective with our sampling choices, opting for varieties that we knew we would enjoy – namely, rosés and dessert wines.

California Wine Fair

We love rosés!

We ended up only trying about ten different wines. Our top three: the Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi Moscato (no surprise, given the Moscato was our favourite from a wine tasting at Vinomania); the sweet nectar also known as Deviation by Quady; and the Classic Brut from Domaine Chandon. I was particularly tickled to see Domaine Chandon represented – Mack and I had the pleasure of touring their winery in Napa when we were down in San Francisco last fall.

California Wine Fair

Domaine Chandon

We observed that there weren’t as many rosés as we would have expected, though we acknowledged the season and the fact that they are meant for more uncomplicated palates. Also, it was somewhat surprising that some wines being sampled weren’t (yet) available in Edmonton liquor stores. Of course, a room full of wine enthusiasts provides a great opportunity to introduce new patrons to a brand in the hopes they may look for it in the future.

After attending the appetizer tasting and wine preview, it was neat to be able to see which the planning committee ended up choosing. Like me, May enjoyed the goat cheese sphere with caramelized onions marmalade most of all. The cheese plate and the chocolate truffles were much appreciated (in pairing with our wines and preventing the alcohol from going straight to our heads), but a hearty meal would have been the ideal proactive move.

California Wine Fair

The jerk chicken and mango chutney in a tortilla cup and roasted shallot, spinach and feta cheese tartlet were good too!

At the end of the night, May and I agreed that we would attend the California Wine Fair next year. For the food, atmosphere and of course, the wine, it would be well worth the $65 ticket. Especially if one were to be on time.

Thanks again to the Citadel for the chance to check it out! See you in 2012!

The 2011 California Wine Fair: A Sampling

I know you’ve seen it, just as I have – the bold, back-page ad in The Tomato advertising the California Wine Fair, now in its thirteenth year. One of the Citadel Theatre’s premiere fundraising events, the California Wine Fair boasts over 300 wines and food catered by the Shaw Conference Centre, all for the price of $65 a ticket. This year’s event will be held on March 8, 2011 at 7pm in Hall D.

Part of the preparations for the Citadel staff include selecting the food which would complement the wines. Along with Mel, it was a privilege to be asked to join several staff for a tasting of hors d’oeuvres at the Shaw Conference Centre on Thursday.


The tasting table

Natasha Susylinski, of Treasury Wine Estates, had chosen four wines for this tasting. A range of representative California wines, they included a Stag’s Leap Chardonnay, Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon, and a St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon (a list of the wineries that will be present can be found here).

Wine selection

The wine spread

As one who prefers white wine, and sweeter whites at that (most Chardonnays are too dry for my taste), my palate probably wasn’t the best one for the wines. That said, like most wine reps, Natasha had a fun anecdote about each of the wines, which always helps with making that particular label memorable. For example, Sapporo (the Japanese beer company) once owned St. Clement, and named one of the wines after themselves: Oroppas (or “Sapporo” spelled backwards).

After we had familiarized ourselves with the wines, we were introduced to the food options. The idea was to choose three appetizers from the fourteen options presented.

SEared scallop fork with vanilla apple chutney

Cold platters, featuring seared scallop form with vanilla apple chutney

All of the hors d’oeuvres were so visually appealing – daintily prepared, garnished with bursts of colour, they were almost too beautiful to eat.

Jerk chicken and mango chutney in a tortilla cup

Jerk chicken and mango chutney in a tortilla cup

Though most of us were hard pressed to pick our preferences, a few emerged as favourites around the table, including the goat cheese sphere with caramelized onion marmalade (creamy texture with just the right amount of sweetness), the barbequed duck with hoisin mayonnaise and wonton chip (a perfectly rounded bite with a satisfying crunch), and the roasted shallot, spinach and feta cheese tartlet (buttery and a good alternative to the more pedestrian spanakopita). These three will likely end up on the final menu.

oat cheese sphere with caramalized onion marmalade

Goat cheese sphere with caramelized onion marmalade

Barbequed duck with hoisin mayonnaise and wonton cup

Barbequed duck with hoisin mayonnaise

In addition to the plated hors d’oeuvres, three varieties of cheese will also be served (oka, brie and old white cheddar). As well, expect to see another classic wine supplement at the event – chocolate truffles.


Dark chocolate espresso with biscotti crumbs, ginger milk chocolate, banana with toasted coconut, and salted caramel truffles

These weren’t the heavy, unyielding mounds I am used to – instead, each bite revealed a thin chocolate shell that encompassed a velvety filling. The standout flavour for me was definitely the salted caramel – there is no doubt I’d be eating my weight in these truffles at the Fair.

Thanks to Pam and Sydney for inviting me to be a part of a fun afternoon!

Tickets for the March 8, 2011 California Wine Fair can be purchased online.

Preview: Flavours of BC’s Naramata Bench Wine Tasting & Auction

This guest post was written by Mack, an Edmonton-based geek who fancies himself a part-time foodie. You can find him online at his blog, and on Twitter.

On Wednesday I had the opportunity to check out a preview of the Flavours of BC’s Naramata Bench Wine Tasting & Auction. The 3rd annual fundraiser for the Winspear Centre and Edmonton Symphony Orchestra takes place on January 28, and features the sounds of Sandro Dominelli performing smooth jazz plus more than three dozen wines. At the preview, we got to taste nine of them.

Flavours of BC's Naramata Bench Wine TastingFlavours of BC's Naramata Bench Wine Tasting

We tasted wines from four different wineries: Kettle Valley, La Frenz, Lake Breeze, and Laughing Stock Vineyards. I enjoy wine, but I am definitely not a connoisseur. Usually I am more than happy to select a bottle from the shelf based on just the name or label. Fortunately for me, there was a little of both at the preview!

David and Cynthia Enns both had established careers in the investment business when they purchased Laughing Stock in 2003. The name is a play on the risk of launching a winery, and the financial references don’t end there. When they released their first wines, they called the event Laughing Stock’s Initial Public Offering (IPO). And they have some of the most unique bottles I’ve seen – instead of traditional sticker labels, they feature information printed directly on the glass. The bottle says “LFNG”, the would-be stock symbol for Laughing Stock, and features the date and a variety of stock prices from that day printed in the style of a stock ticker tape. It’s eye catching!

Flavours of BC's Naramata Bench Wine Tasting

We tasted three wines from Laughing Stock: Portfolio 2007, Blind Trust Red 2008, and Chardonnay 2009. Portfolio (the winery’s flagship) is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, and retails for around $40. Blind Trust Red is a blend of Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon, and retails for around $29. The Chardonnay is aged in larger format French oak barrels, and goes for about $26. Of the three, I enjoyed the Portfolio most.

Flavours of BC's Naramata Bench Wine Tasting

La Frenz was started by Jeff Martin, known for spearheading Quails’ Gate in Kelowna. Their bottles feature a QR code on the back, which is still fairly unique, but something I expect more wineries will adopt in the future. We tried two of their wines: Semillon and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Semillon, which sells for about $28, is blended with 10% Sauvignon Blanc and had a nice citrus flavor. The Cabernet Sauvignon sells for about $37 and had great color. Among other awards, it won Double Gold and Best Over $25 at the All Canadian Wine Championship last year.

We tasted two wines from Kettle Valley, which features the Kettle Valley Railway on its labels: Merlot and Pinot Noir. The Merlot, which sells for about $26, was one of my favorites of the night. The Pinot Noir, which sells for about $36, was good as well, with earthy tones. Both are multi-sourced wines, fermented in French oak.

Flavours of BC's Naramata Bench Wine Tasting

We also tasted two wines from Lake Breeze: Seven Poplars Sauvignon Blanc and Seven Poplars Merlot. Seven Poplars denotes the winery’s premium wines, created from select barrels and select vineyards. The Sauvignon Blanc, which sells for about $27, was sweeter than I prefer, which made me think that Sharon would really have enjoyed it. The Merlot, which sells for about $37, was my favorite of the evening. It was full bodied and very flavorful.

If the wines at the preview were any indication, the fundraiser later this month will be an enjoyable affair. Tickets are $90 per person for the main event, or $150 if you’d like to sample the VIP tasting, which gives you access to exclusive library wines and the chance to learn from the winemakers themselves. For more information, including a list of the featured wineries, check out the Winspear Centre’s website.

LitFest: Genu-Wine

I was happy to be invited to LitFest’s Genu-Wine this year, though I have to say I didn’t know what to expect. The festival program was vague: “LitFest tackles serious global issues, accompanied by samples of seriously good wine”, but I was looking forward to seeing how it would all come together.

Mack and I walked over to the Kids in the Hall Bistro on Saturday night, and encountered a packed venue. A few stand-up cocktail tables were set-up, but halfway through the evening, patrons moved them aside to make room for more chairs. The room, with a buffet table, a wine station and a podium, was unfortunately arranged without proper flow – I had to think the organizers didn’t anticipate such a large crowd.


The spread (there was actually quite a bit of food)

Associate producer Shauna Sisson told us later that LitFest had always wanted to put on a “schmoozing” event, and this was their first attempt at combining wine with snippets of literary works. While festival organizers deserve kudos for trying something new, the format of Genu-wine probably needs further tweaking.

It seemed straightforward enough – the host would introduce one of the four authors and the wine to be sampled following the reading, the author would talk about their work, and end with a reading from their book. The audience was then invited up to help themselves to glasses of Yellow Tail wine (which had all been donated for the event), while enjoying upbeat tunes from Don Berner. Repeated three times, with brief moments to network in between authors, it felt choppy.


Alice Major

The authors themselves accomplished what they needed to do, however – provoking discussion in the crowd. Andrew Potter, musing on the idea (and fallacy) of “authenticity” and Dan Gardener on the nonsensical belief in predictions incited the most debate in our group, but Alice Major was undoubtedly the most eloquent and Lawrence Scanlan the most poignant (and my favourite of the evening), with his excerpt on the rebuilding in New Orleans.


Andrew Potter addresses the crowd

And though they were the cheesiest portions of the evening, I loved how the organizers cheekily tried to connect random varieties of wine with the authors (I will never think of “bubbles rose” in the same way again).


Yellow Tail line-up

I’m not sure what I would suggest to make the event better (two readings in a row? more time between readings?), but I think the casual, informal vibe of the evening is worth maintaining. I’ll be interested to check out Genu-Wine next year, whatever its incarnation.

Last Patio Days of Summer: TZiN

I’ve been looking for an excuse to return to TZiN – the chic little wine bar on 104 Street – for some time. Though Mack and I are really lucky to live in an area where we have plenty of restaurant choices, I find that if we’re in our neighbourhood, we will inevitably dine in.

That said, meeting up with Annie this week was just the reason I needed to revisit TZiN. Though I love the swank interior, especially cozy as the weather cools off, we decided to make the most of the last days of summer and sat out on the patio (I have to comment that their furniture was particularly comfortable – notable when a lot of patio furniture is too hard, awkward, or not meant for dawdling).

Kelsey, always pleasant and knowledgeable, took good care of us wine-wise. I was happy with my easy to drink Gewurztraminer, and Annie (who has been working her way through Spanish reds), enjoyed her generous glass of Gine Gine.


Wine on the patio!

Several items on the menu were tempting (making me think I’d like to be back again before the menu changes again), but I ended up ordering the sirloin and rosemary crostinis ($18.50) and Annie the creamy chili prawns ($17)

Though the items were listed on a “tasting menu”, I’d have to say the dishes didn’t quite fit that billing – they were too large to be considered just a “taste”, and yet, were missing a component to be deemed a full entrée – a side salad to accompany my crostini would have made it a full meal, while some pasta or rice underneath Annie’s shrimp would have lovingly soaked up the creamy, rich sauce. Annie was also hoping for an vegetable side to complement our eats.


Creamy chili prawns

That said, we did enjoy the food. Annie’s prawns were well cooked, and my crostini were topped with a tasty combination of sautéed mushrooms and onions, cheese, marinated sirloin and a delicious spread.


Sirloin and rosemary crostini

When we paid our bill, Kelsey fanned out thin strips of paper, and beckoned us to take one. It turned out they were little fortunes for us to take away. Mine read: “Listen closely as those around you speak; great truths are revealed in jest.” -Javan

At some point, it probably would have been wise for me to have warmed up inside (Annie had to lend me her jacket), but I was stubbornly grasping at the faint wisps of the season. No matter – with a dwindling number of patio days remaining in the calendar year, it was worth the slight chill to be outside.

10115 104 Street
(780) 428-8946
Tuesday-Thursday 3:59-11:03pm, Friday-Saturday 4:01pm-12:06am

A Little Redemption: Lit Wine Bar

Before the Energy game, Amanda and I planned to grab a bite to eat downtown, then hop on the bus to NAIT. It’s a little amusing – with all my harping about unnecessary television screens in bars, we almost ended up at The Hat so we could watch the Oilers draft Taylor Hall. Fortunately, my hankering for a post-work glass of wine was greater than my draft viewing desire, so we ultimately settled on Lit Wine Bar.

I had been unimpressed with Lit up until that point. When the City Market kicked off its 2010 season back in May, Lit was offering free samples – the cannoli I sampled could have chipped a tooth. Worse – at Indulgence, their wild mushroom-stuffed arancini was so salty it was inedible. I was hoping the full kitchen experience would be a better one.

Lit was completely empty when we sauntered in, just past 5pm on a Friday. Still, the hostess/waitress asked if we had a reservation. We said no, and asked if it was possible to sit upstairs. She indicated that some of the tables in the loft space had been reserved, but led us upstairs anyway. Though no other parties joined us on the second floor during our stay, props to our server for traipsing up the stairs to serve an isolated two top without showing visible signs of resentment.

The décor in Lit is minimal and clean – black leather banquets, a bubble light fixture, interesting art (which is also for sale) – but isn’t the kind of room that wows at first glance. Still, I love the fact that they decided to acknowledge the high ceiling and build an additional seating area, and one that would work quite well for a small private party. I did think it was a bit strange for such a posh spot to have to rely on the radio for mood music though – I hope that changes soon.


The glass of wine definitely hit the spot. I wasn’t hungry enough to want a full main, so instead, chose plates Amanda and I could share. The arancini rustico ($9) seemed interesting – deep fried arborio rice filled with melted cheese. And with a full line of flatbreads (they seem to be a menu staple for lounges and wine bars in the city, do they not?), I figured that would be a good benchmark dish as well, and chose the pollo pesto ($10). Amanda opted to round out her meal with the insalata fresca ($12).

The arancini came out right away, as promised. Not uniform in size, they nonetheless appealed to the eye, fried to a golden crisp and ready to plunge into one of the two sauces alongside. Amanda and I both agreed the marinara was the better of the two – a little tart, but added that extra something to the arancini, which were a little under seasoned in my opinion. The cheese sauce was a little thick for its purpose, and just too rich for us.

Arancini rustico

Amanda’s salad looked like a snapshot of summer, with strawberries, greens, and a honey balsamic vinaigrette. I don’t often order salads at restaurants, so I’m not the best judge, but she said it was a bit small and not creative enough for the price. She also isn’t a fan of goat cheese, but as the menu indicated the dish came with mozzarella, wasn’t able to alert the kitchen in advance.

Insalata fresca

The flatbread was surprisingly large, to the point where it moved beyond an appetizer and into entrée territory – our waitress said it had expanded in recent weeks. My sister and I had two different responses to the bread base – I didn’t like how crispy it was, resembling the texture of pita chips, while Amanda quite enjoyed the crunchy texture. However, we both thought the toppings were great, a well balanced combination of pesto, chicken and surprisingly delicious bruschetta (with mellowed, non-biting onions).

Pollo pesto flatbread

We had no quibble with service – our server was friendly, and everything was fairly efficient. It was also a relief to know that my initial impressions may not be a true representation of Lit. I’d be interested to check them out again in a few weeks, once they’ve settled and had some time to finalize the menu. I guess it helps that I’m in such close range now!

Lit Wine Bar
10132 – 104 Street
(780) 757-6688
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11am-2pm (Lit closed for lunch for the summer); Dinner: Tuesday-Wednesday 4-11pm, Thursday-Saturday 4pm-2am

Wine Tasting @ Vinomania

A few weeks ago, May told me about a wine tasting to be hosted at Vinomania, organized by the University of Alberta Alumni Association. And as $25 seems to be my threshold for wine tasting events (at least currently), it seemed like a great opportunity to sample more wines in an attempt to further develop my palate.


It turned out that $25 was a beyond reasonable price, as in addition to nine wines, we also had access to a hot and cold food spread, catered by Bistecca. The staff person later told me that the Alumni Association had subsidized the event, in the hopes of ensuring the ticket price wouldn’t be a barrier to attendance. So it looks like my University education is paying me back in other ways too!

Food spread

Gurvinder Bhatia, owner of Vinomania and a wine columnist with CBC, was a great host. Personable and obviously passionate about wine, Gurvinder had just returned from Italy a few days before. As a result, eight out of the nine selections that evening were Italian, allowing us to travel through the country in a wine glass. It helped also that Gurvinder is a storyteller, personifying each variety with his tales of winemakers, grape histories and places.

Our wine line-up

The store itself is quite nice to visit also, with the majority of wines organized nicely into crates (which, as May and I found, made great purse cubbyholes too), lit by track lighting suspended from above. It made the gloomy, grey fluorescence and monochromatic shelves at the rear of the store lacklustre by comparison. Gurvinder has also set up a 24 for under $24 section right up front, perfect for green winos like myself.


Gurvinder talked about how food and wine pairings should consider flavour, weight , texture and acidity. He encouraged guests to help themselves to the spread, and given the number of full-bodied reds we tried, I was glad for the crispy bison short rib rolls, fatty deliciousness of the braised pork belly, and absolutely amazing veal cheek (it was so tender it melted in my mouth). I know what I’m having the next time I’m at Bistecca.

My tasting plate (first of many)

The wines (as always) moved from whites to reds, and (as always) I enjoyed the whites more than the reds. My favourite of the evening was the Gallo Mauro Moscato d’Asti, a refreshingly light dessert wine that Gurvinder said pairs like a dream with chocolate. I picked up a bottle with the intention of saving it for a warm summer night, to be served alongside bars of Chocophilia.

One of the white wines of the night

Gurvinder also had a nice surprise in store for us after the tasting concluded. In addition to a copy of Tidings, a food and wine magazine, he also offered everyone a free membership to the Vinomania Club, which entitles us to discounts, and a $20 tasting card, to be used with the store’s Enomatic system (refreshed often with different bottles of wine to sample). Though it’s a great marketing ploy to get us all back to the store, it was still a much appreciated gift.

Enomatic System at Vinomania

It was great to see some familiar faces at the event, and meet some new ones as well. Cheers!

11452 Jasper Avenue
(780) 488-7973
Monday-Wednesday 10am-7pm, Thursday-Saturday 10am-9pm, closed Sundays

The 2010 PMA International Winemaker’s Dinner at Madison’s Grill

Tuesday was a funny day. One minute, I was mopping up the lake that had overtaken our office bathroom (there is something to be said about reliable plumbing), the next, I was at a posh food and wine event at the always elegant Madison’s Grill.

I can’t express how fortunate Mack and I were to be the recipients of an extremely generous gift – two tickets to the Peter Mielzynski Agencies (PMA) International Winemaker’s dinner, the gateway to an evening of glorious food, liberally poured spirits and the company of some of the most renowned winemakers in the world. At $160 a ticket, it was out of our price range, but Monique and Patrick, who we had met at the Farmers’ Market Dinner at the same venue a few months back, were unable to attend, and asked us if we could go in their place. We accepted, and thanked them profusely.

One of several glasses of wine that night

While Mack and I enjoy wine, we admittedly aren’t very knowledgeable about it – growing regions, grape varieties, aging processes – all of it forms a murky haze for us. And though one night does not cure all, to have the opportunity to be exposed to those whose enthusiasm and passion for wine exuded through their pores was intoxicating (or was that the wine?).

A sea of glasses

We arrived at the restaurant just after 6:00, greeted by floating trays of hors d’ouvres and the offer of a sweet grass martini made with Calvados (apple brandy). Not long after, Chef Blair Lebsack spotted us in the crowd and came to greet us personally – his ability to make everyone feel welcome is something that elevates him in the industry, in my opinion.

Eventually, we found ourselves at a table where the common denominator was an interest in wine. PMA, which put together the dinner (we found out later that PMA represents some of the top wine labels in the world), ensured that one of the seven wine and spirit makers present were seated at each of the seven tables. Our table was fortunate to dine with the affable Craig McDonald, who works at the Wayne Gretzky Estate Winery in Niagara, and is considered one of the best winemakers in Canada.


The Farmers’ Market Dinner had exposed us to the concept of a chef’s introduction of a dish, and how the preamble about the ingredients and processes undertaken to create the final result enriches the meal. An additional layer was added to the PMA dinner, as the winemaker was given the microphone first, to introduce their company and products. Not only was it interesting to hear the stories behind some of the spirits, I was also amazed by the history and generations-old expertise in the room. Lamberto Frescobaldi’s family, for example, has been in the winemaking business for seven hundred years in Tuscany.


Blair then took the floor before cutlery was raised, and explained why the kitchen thought the dish in front of us would pair well with the wine or spirit we were drinking. Halfway through the dinner, Mack remarked, “I never really appreciated pairings until now.” I felt the same way.

Innis & Gunn beer

The amuse bouche of pickled beet and carrot terrine was meant to refresh our palate after the heavier scallop, tuna tartare and foie gras hors d’ouvres. It was exactly that, a pop of acidity that complemented the sweet and bubbly Pongracz Cap Classique from South Africa.

Pickled beet and carrot terrine with dill salsa verde

The first course was Mack’s favourite – an unassuming combination of steamed PEI mussels with braised pork belly. He thought the pairing, with a Wayne Gretzky Estate Series Chardonnay, was a dream, and loved the textural play of the mussels and the meltingly tender pork.

Steamed PEI mussels and braised pork belly

The next course was my favourite – an upside down smoked duck and gouda tart. As soon as the plate was put down in front of me, I was in sensory overload, under the spell of the fragrant aroma. The duck breast was perfectly cooked, fatty and toothsome, while peach preserves offset the richness of the buttery tart. I am normally not a fan of beer, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the pairing with an Innis & Gunn beer, which played off the smokiness well.

Upside down smoked duck and gouda tart

The nicoise salad with seared ahi tuna served as a good bridge to the denser courses that followed. The beans deserve a special mention, still crisp and light.

Nicoise salad

The fourth course of thyme rubbed Nouveau Beef petite tender was unforgettable. With truffle appearing in more mainstream restaurants, sometimes unnecessarily, this dish reminded me why it is such a glorious ingredient to begin with – creamy and fragrant, both Mack and I wanted to bathe in the white truffle hollandaise. This dish also exemplifies Blair’s exquisite attention to detail – as the beef was paired with a Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinot Noir from Oregon, he made sure that the accompanying wild mushrooms (and white truffle) were also sourced from that state.

Thyme rubbed Nouveau Beef petite tender

The final main, paired with a bold and full-bodied Collazzi Toscana from Italy, was Blair’s clever homage to rustic, “meat and potatoes” Italian food. Instead of doing a traditional mashed or boiled potatoes, however, the plate featured an extravagant potato-lobster lasagne, with the starchy spud layers standing in for pasta.

Oven roasted Pilatus Farms bison tenderloin

Dessert (accompanied by our eighth drink that night, a Kunde Reserve Century Vines Zinfandel) was a sinfully rich chocolate-almond silk cake, tempered somewhat with a wild berry compote. Needless to say, I was happy we were offered coffee to end the night, the caffeine helping somewhat to gather my bearings.

Chocolate-almond silk cake

At the end of the “epic meal” (Mack’s words), the kitchen staff were applauded with a much-deserved standing ovation. From start to finish, it was an incredible dinner, and an evening we won’t soon forget. We are indebted to Monique and Patrick for this experience.

“Bottom Drops” Wine Tasting at deVine’s

Thom, Mack and I met up at deVine Wines & Spirits on Thursday night for their “Bottom Drops” wine tasting. Though Mack and I enjoy wine, the extent of our knowledge goes as far as recognizing our preferences. Thom, more of a vodka and rum man, wanted to learn more about wine as well – so we thought an informal tasting would make a good Christmas gift, and a nice group outing.

Mack and Thom

We were told the evening had sold out of its standing-room only 80 tickets, but once the crowd had been assembled, we didn’t believe that the room was actually that full. Regardless, each $25 ticket granted us seven wine samples, access to a supply of good cheese and bread, and an option to purchase any of the evening’s wines at a 10% discount.

At deVine’s

The evening was introduced as a counterpoint to their pricey “Top Drops” series ($110 per ticket), where all wines sampled were priced at over $100 a bottle. All “Bottom Drops” wines were under $25, though Nick, who led the night’s activities, had tweaked the price of at least one bottle to make it fit the cost window.

“Bottom Drops” selections

While I’ve been to tasting events like the Rocky Mountain Wine & Food Festival and Sip!, this was my first “guided” tasting. I have to say I enjoyed it very much – the colour Nick lent to the wines, from the history of a particular grape, to the nuances of a growing region, enhanced the experience. I particularly enjoyed his anecdote about the carmenere grape, which he had dubbed the “Jurassic grape”, owing to the fact that many thought the varietal was long extinct.


My favourite (not surprisingly), was the honey-sweet Roumieu dessert wine, while both Mack and Thom liked the 1999 Crianza best, and subsequently picked up a bottle each. The evening was a lucrative one for deVine’s – it seemed like every attendee bought at least one bottle to take home.

The entire tasting lasted about an hour and a half, which was the perfect length of time for a weeknight – and with the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere, I thought  deVine’s was a great venue to learn a little more about wine.

There are ample places to enhance your wine education in Edmonton – here are just a few if you’re looking: